Sunday, 14 July 2019


My (failed lately) plan is to write blog posts regularly, not because I flatter myself that the world is crying out to read them but because I like the way writing them clarifies things for me. Writing, for me, is the best way to think. Only after you've set down a few scrappy sentences do you see, reading back through them, how muddy your thinking is  - and how lazy. No, not "you", of course - me, is what I actually mean.

But then, working your (my) way through the strings of words, teasing out whatever real idea there may be within them, you discover what you actually saw and thought and believed, as you wandered the world or read a book or watched the telly or a play.

That takes time though and there are always other things to do instead - brain work is, for me, always to be avoided, if possible. I think this is mainly because it is so anti-social. Once I do start writing anything with any concentration, I find myself so absorbed that I don't want any kind of demand or interruption from anyone else. I think that must be what is meant by being "deep in thought". An artist I know says she has realised that she too procrastinates because she wants to avoid the invevitable withdrawal that comes with trying to solve tricky problems to do with how she wants a work to look.

Anyway, since I don't suppose I will necessarily ever get around to writing about them as fully as I'd wished to, here are:

a) some of the books I've especially liked lately

Something for the Pain and The Plains by Gerald Murnane

Murnane comes from roughly the same part of Australia that my mother comes from. He has never left Australia and apparently scarcely never left the state of Victoria. This in itself makes him attractive to me - having travelled, not always entirely willingly, since I was a very small child, I have a secret belief that those who never leave a small piece of territory know more and are wiser than those of us who have roamed widely. But perhaps I am merely comparing Hedgehog knowledge with Fox knowledge

Murnane's dreamlike novel The Plains concerns a region - "the true extent [of which] had never been agreed on" - that is somehow beyond Australia, but encircled by it, a region that our narrator believes only he can interpret. His mission is to be accepted by the masters of this region, the plainsmen - whose main preoccupation is "their lifelong task of shaping from uneventful days in a flat landscape the substance of myth" and  whose apparent arrogance "was no more than their reluctance to recognise any common ground between themselves and others ... the very opposite ... of the common urge among Australians of those days to emphasise whatever they seemed to share with other cultures". The book reminds me of Peter Carey's short story Report on the Shadow Industry - 

My own feelings about the shadows are ambivalent, to say the least. For here I have manufactured one more: elusive, unsatisfactory, hinting at greater beauties and more profound mysteries that exist somewhere before the beginning and somewhere after the end.

I actually read Something for the Pain, Murnane's autobiography, before reading The Plains. Although nonfiction it is scarcely less dreamlike and it turns out that Murnane shares with the plainsmen a fascination with colour. Having begun to train as a priest, Murnane loses his Catholic belief and replaces it with a complex faith of his own making, centred around the coloured silks worn by jockeys.  The book is wonderfully odd. Murnane writes beautifully and, as far as one can tell, exceptionally unselfconsciously, untroubled apparently by thoughts of fame and fortune. Without striving for it, he turns out to be one of the most original writers alive.

My Cousin Rachel and The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

I found My Cousin Rachel very exciting to begin with but then got bored, having not been supplied a solution to the mystery and feeling that there was not enough other substance in the novel. I preferred The Scapegoat, because the depiction of what it is like to live in peacetime side by side with people who did not behave entirely honourably, gave the narrative interest beyond the mere drive of plot. But both are well written novels with great descriptions of setting and a wonderfully imagined array of characters. du Maurier was a rare, great storyteller.

The Party by Elizabeth Day

I don't know why I got this. It is a small thriller with a sad situation at its heart. I didn't like it. The characters lacked depth. If you read it very quickly, it isn't terrible though, mainly depressing.

All Out War by Tim Shipman

This tells the story of the Brexit campaign and is very entertaining and interesting.

Jackdaw Cake: An Autobiography by Norman Lewis

While Lewis's life is most interesting when he is very young and therefore I enjoyed the early parts best because they are so particularly funny, the whole book is amusing and very good. He is an excellent writer.

Lewis's childhood is spent partly in Enfield, where he comes home one day and "found that my father had become a Spiritualist medium" and partly in his grandfather's house in Wales, (during his entire childhood his grandfather never addresses a word to him), together with his aunts, Polly, who suffers very badly from epilepsy and regularly falls into the fire; Annie, who loves dressing up, to his embarrassment once he starts school, sometimes as Queen Mary, sometimes as a female cossack, sometimes as a Spanish dancer; and Li, who cries almost constantly - as well as an "old grey parrot [that] crawled over the furniture making .. farting noises, and a number of tall clocks [that] ticked the wrong time",  plus the game cocks his grandfather bred, the best of which was "fed on chopped up fillet steak, barley sugar, aniseed, ginger, rhubarb and yeast mixed with 'cock bread' made from oatmeal and eggs to which a little cinnamon was added".

In that house, Lewis tells us:

 "the choice of reading material [was] Victorian novels that were too old for me, or a manuscript copy of a work by one of my forebears who had kept an eye-witness account at the beginning of the last century of all the numerous public hangings of condemned men from the boughs of the great oaks still standing at Llangunnor, across the river."

Even an attempt at something as ordinary as a picnic unfolds in an unstraightforward way:

"We were menaced by an aggressive cow that had strayed down to the beach, and when we presented a dog with the remnants of our stale sandwiches, it went off and returned with the gift of the decayed corpse of a large seabird, and could not be driven away."

It is hardly surprising when Lewis remarks: "above all I was anxious not to be associated in any way with eccentric behaviour."

Despite this impulse, Lewis marries into a fairly eccentric Sicilian family - I particularly like his description of his father-in-law as being "dressed always as if attending at an important funeral"

With the arrival of war, Lewis joins the armed forces and is sent to:

"Winchester, where the training was by the NCOs of the Grenadier Guards; [it] was the shrine and museum of ceremonial marching, and the commanding officer in those days, ‘Mad John’ Rankin, prided himself on the fact that one form, invented by Frederick the Great, was practised nowhere else." According to Lewis, "the only instruction we received was in lecturing ‘other ranks’ on security. ‘It’s a good thing to get off on the right foot and put them at their ease,’ the officer said. ‘You’ll find it helps to address them as “you fuckers”.’

Soon he finds himself under the orders of Sergeant-Major Fitch. "This man", Lewis writes, "was strangely obsessed with coal, for which he had come to develop an affection while working in the cinema [looking after the boiler there], and he always begged us when we went out to patrol the docks to take a haversack in which we could smuggle out a few ‘cobs’ from the various deposits in the dock area. He kept his treasure stacked in glistening black pyramids and ziggurats in his back garden."

Intriguingly, Lewis mentions a colleague in the military who surely must have been part of Louis de Berniere's inspiration for aspects of Captain Corelli's Mandolin:

"He was a PhD and had been a lecturer in Hellenic Studies at Aberystwyth University, and with the outbreak of the communist revolt in Greece and the consequent rush to find Greek speakers, his name had been unearthed in the files. Hopper spoke only the classical version of the language, and knew little of the happenings in the country after its eclipse by Rome in the first century ad. Needless to say, by the time he reached Europe on his way to Athens, the emergency had been at an end for some two months."

I could go on but I'm supposed to be making this snappy. There is much more in the book and in Naples '44 which I read after it - a more famous piece of his oeuvre, but not as entertaining. To briefly sum up, I love Lewis's unsentimental sense of human absurdity, and although he never seems quite a wholehearted participant, more a bemused observer, he never conveys any sense of superiority. Jackdaw Cake does reveal that the setting he gave to one of my favourite books is really Guatemala, which he considered "the most beautiful country in the world".
The Standing Chandelier: A Novella by Lionel Shriver

I enjoyed this - I think Lionel Shriver is becoming a better and better writer of fiction and I loved The Mandibles a year or two ago. My favourite quote from The Standing Chandelier, about the main character is this one:

" it had taken her some years to understand that she’d had such trouble settling on a career because she didn’t want one."

The Outline Trilogy by Rachel Cusk

I had read no Rachel Cusk until I came across the Outline Trilogy, which I loved. Cusk fashions the three books almost entirely from the narratives of those she meets, which she reports more or less verbatim (although probably none of them existed at all and the entire thing is made up).  More recently I've been reading A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter, in which a narrator tells the story, as he imagines it, of his friend's love affair. As I read that book the other day, I suddenly saw a parallel between it and Cusk's trilogy, and it came to me that what both writers are doing is demonstrating that each individual imagines that their versions of what they see people around them doing is reality but really it is only their own fictional version of what they imagine to be others' reality. None of us know anything except about our own selves (if even that?) but we imagine we do and make up our own stories about everyone else, stories we believe are real. Rachel Cusk affects to merely pass on the stories she is told. Salter claims to be telling his friend's story, but it is actually very much the story he imagines and may be nothing like what happened. Both of them are reverting back to openly being story tellers, rather than effacing the author from their fiction - they are making it clear that this is a story being told by the writer, rather than striving for the illusion that this little world they have conjured up on the page is real, existing outside of the storytelling framework.

But there may still be a realist's sleight of hand at work. Under the guise of relating true stories of what happened to her - or rather to her main character to whom she has given a name other than her own - is Cusk actually creating fiction that strives for the illusion of reality as much as that of the realists did? That is, if what she is relating is actually entirely made up, then hers is really just a new form of realism. Thus, we believe as we read the trilogy that Cusk is not writing fiction but reporting what really happened but, if none of it is true, if actually it is all not reportage but entirely imagined out of thin air, then she turns out to be the greatest producer of realist illusion of all.

In short, she may not have been told any of what she relates, and in that case, while apparently entirely drawn from life and not at all from imagination, these books are an enormous act of fiction, with as vast an array of entirely imaginary characters as any Tolstoy or Dickens novel. And anyway, as everything is filtered through the narrator, the characters, even if drawn from direct experience, do all become fictional because they are only her interpretation of themselves, just one reality among many - including their own, possibly very different one.  Certainly, under the guise of random reporting, Cusk manages to examine and rexamine a number of themes and ideas in these books, as well as playing with the whole idea of fiction.

I've also now read by her: Arlington Park, my least favourite thus far; The Country Life, which is very funny; In the Fold, which is also funny and insightful; The Temporary, which I wasn't enormously fond of; and The Bradshaw Variations, which for reasons I don't understand I can't remember anything about - possibly my e-reader has got it wrong in telling me that I've finished it.

Love & Fame by Susie Boyt

I found this book, I'm sorry to say, a little annoying, mainly because of the main character, but there are good bits in it. Here are a few, and I do recognise that they are some of them fairly domestic and middle-class, relating to folded linen and cups of tea, but then I am too:

"He genuinely loved his enemies, and not just to annoy them either, like normal people."

"It was lucky, she thought, that childhood occurred at the beginning of life. If it took place later on, no one would be able to stand it."

"Sometimes right at the very edge of what you could bear were the best things."

"A cup of tea can be almost voluptuous at times."

"It doesn’t make sense. People we love dying. It’s an appalling idea. What a flaw in the system."
"A silver tankard of prawns, their tails hooked over the lip of the cup like louche chorus girls."

"You do not see the world as it is, you do not even see it as you are, you see it as you were"

"They had passed a beautiful bright blue and white 1910 clapboard house with a wrap-around porch on an architectural tour. ‘What’s that house there?’ he asked the guide. It was actually the sort of building the bold new architecture was designed to replace – so that was him told – but the blue house kept popping into his mind. It was solid and it was perfect and through the windows you could make out large square rooms and old wooden floors"

"Linen is very soothing. When you see it all folded up at home in the cupboard"

"being too tired to peel a sticker from a granny smith so you just eat through it anyway"
"Perhaps you just can’t hide anything any more in the world"

"Why would someone who was going to end their life go out and buy a new computer?’ ‘Maybe setting it up was so frustrating it pushed him over the edge!’"

"‘Do you think some people feel humiliation more easily than others?’"

"Like airports,’ Eve said, ‘what they do to the time.'"

Hare Sitting Up by Michael Innes

This should really be a Battered Penguin but I don't have anything to say about it, except that it wasn't the best Appleby novel I've read but I like Appleby novels, even not very good ones.

This Great Calamity by Christine Kinealy

This book about the Irish famine is extremely well researched, makes you furious at the callous way the British government behaved, but is an exceptionally dull read.

Pure by Andrew Miller

I enjoyed this. Andrew Miller is a good writer, but there was something bloodless and thin about the novel - I never really understood why he had written it. There are beautifully imagined scenes but I didn't come away feeling I was different or wiser really. I do believe you need to read books at the right time and perhaps I didn't read this at the right time.

It's Beginning to Hurt by James Lasdun

James Lasdun is a good writer with a fairly nasty imagination. These are well crafted rather old-fashioned short stories. Entertaining and skilful

The Joys of Travel by Thomas Swick

A nice set of essays about travel. Swick is a good solid travel writer.

The Reading Party by Fenella Gentleman

What was the point of publishing this book? It was baggy and shapeless and rather sentimental. It just slowly meandered to no end in particular. Annoying.

Resolution  by AN Wilson

Brilliant, absolutely loved it, everyone should read it.

Loving by Henry Green

I didn't get the Henry Green bug and found this very very hard going. Proud to have finished it but not sure why I should be. Again perhaps I encountered it at the wrong time?

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien

Although the ending is wet and the trip to the Hague somehow silly, I really liked this book. O'Brien is a strangely enchanting writer.

Wilful Disregard by Lena Anderson

Unsparing account of a dreadful case of female obsession, leading to said female to lose all dignity. Very sad.

I also read The Divided Mind, Healing Back Pain - the mind-body Connection, The Mindbody Prescription by John Sarno and loved them all and totally believed his theory about suppressed anger expressing itself through other means, regardless of whether or not it has been clinically trialled or not. Sarno comes across as a kind, good, thoughtful physician, but I quite understands that others will disagree.

I am also making my way through the Grand Hotel Budapest  which is a book about the making of the film of the same name. I am really fond of that film and I love reading about it.

Meanwhile, through all this time, the Brexit madness as churned on, which is partly why I've been reading - to ignore that other ghastly shrieking muddle. Last night I tried to watch AF Neil's interviews with Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson and was baffled and alienated afterwards to find that they were considered to be brilliant interviews. The issue of fox hunting was somehow raised recently by Hunt apparently - although I bet, like the "do or die" quote supposedly uttered by Johnson, it was actually thrown up by a journalist and the politician simply had to respond, thus cementing themselves in ways they never intended - anyway the only hunting allowed in Britain at the moment seems to be the hue and cry of the media. Instead of asking questions of interest and waiting for answers, they hector and bully, they lay traps for gotchas and they are just ruder than anyone should be - and this is considered great journalism. For example, how can this question from Neil to Johnson be useful, in the sense of providing the public with any intuition about what policies might be pursued if Johnson becomes Prime Minister:

"Someone who's worked for you, who knows you well, says you're all flaws and no character. The British people will face huge and unprecedented risk with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, won't they"

That isn't a question - essentially Neil is hurling an anonymous insult at his interviewee and expecting what? That Johnson says, "You're right. I'm awful". Or could it be that he just wants the squeals of joy he hopes to elicit from his admiring journalistic colleagues - "Ooo look at Andy, being butch and showing no respect, that's how we do it these days, spit on the lot of them, while never being prepared ourselves to take on these hellish jobs".

And to Hunt, Neil sneered that his business wasn't as big as those founded by people like Steve Jobs, because, once again, why should you show any respect for anyone who wants to be a member of parliament, even if you, the interviewer, have never set up a company or created new jobs for anyone - or indeed ever tried to do anything constructive, preferring to go into what is no longer a studio but an arena and attempt to tear and rip away any tattered vestiges of respect the public might hope to retain toward their elected representatives. Imagine if journalists subjected themselves to these kinds of experiences. But the media like to remain firmly in the pack, hunting, not hunted, politicians and anyone at all who tries to do anything positive their natural prey. It's actually both sickening and hugely corrosive for democracy and decent government - you have to be prepared to be hounded if you decide to go into any form of public life - not merely questioned, but spoken to with unbridled viciousness, as if you deserve it just for daring to try. It's called bullyng and political interviewers have become the entitled, arrogant bullies of our age. I really hate it.

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